Sunday, January 24, 2016

album review: 'emotional mugger' by ty segall

Ty Segall unsettles me.

And I say that as a fan of the guy, starting when I dug deeply into his discography to cover his 2014 record Manipulator. His material may be prolifically scattershot, sprawling over a half dozen albums and even more side projects, but dig into his records at length and you see a certain darkness that colours his writing, self-deprecating but a little craven and sinister, narrowing its focus on darker, venial human impulses that can feel a little disconcerting. This became most apparent with his cleanest and most cohesive record to date on Manipulator - which focused on a broad selection of manipulative situations that ultimately rung as more plainly nihilist - but I had a feeling in my gut that sound wouldn't last. On some level, Ty Segall's material has always been at its best when the rougher instrumentation matched the subject matter, like on the excellent Slaughterhouse from 2012, and when I heard that his release this year was going darker again, I was certainly intrigued.

But one thing that I also noticed was the build-up - a longer-than-expected distance between projects, the release announced through the mailing of VHS tapes, the creation of a website to announce and promote the album and the concept of 'emotional mugging', and the introduction of a new backing band, featuring long-time collaborator Mikal Cronin and a few new faces like the frontman of Wand Cory Hanson on guitar and keyboard. And when I say 'faces' I mean none at all, because the video released in that build-up features the band in baby masks, which Segall has continued to wear at live sets. So putting aside the obvious cue from modern horror games, it seemed right from the outset that Ty Segall was looking to be as unsettling as possible, strip away the prettier veneer on Manipulator for something ugly - and honestly, that made me even more excited, especially if we were descending back into the wildness of Slaughterhouse. So what did we get with Emotional Mugger?

Honestly, while I get what this album was trying to do, I'm not exactly sure Ty Segall's Emotional Mugger sticks the landing. I've been through this album a good dozen times trying to untangle it, and while I think I've got a handle on the ideas that Segall was looking to explore, it's definitely not one of my favourite records of his, less deliriously messy and explosive and raw than venial and debased and alien - which would have been fine if the underlying melodies and concepts were enough to support it, and I don't think they are.

So let's start with Ty Segall himself, and what I've said in the past about his vocals is that I tend to prefer when they're louder and rougher and more visceral... and that doesn't really happen on this album. Instead, following in the lo-fi glam rock sound he's opting for a higher, nasal, British-accented sneer that isn't exactly bad but can get pretty grating, especially considering how often he runs it through multiple distorted channels. It's probably the worst on 'Mandy Cream', but at least he's mostly comprehensible on that track, where other songs like 'Baby Big Man (I Want A Mommy)' drowns him in reverb or his high crooning falsetto on 'The Magazine' is only really understandable on the hook.

Granted, that song goes off in a distinctly different direction instrumentally with the bass-heavy foundation with much crisper drums and handclaps against a distant guitar, so I'm inclined to give it something of a pass - and hell, if I'm going to give Ty Segall some real credit, the instrumentation on this record does grow on you, as dank, fuzzed out, and sleazy as it is. The drum lines are sparse but along with the burbling grime of the bass they drive something of a groove for the spiky guitars to careen against, either dropping into lockstep melodic layers like on 'Squealer' and 'Mandy Cream' or build to some pretty impressive interplay like on 'Candy Sam' or 'California Hills', the latter which breaks up the track with some jittery guitar pieces that end up working pretty damn well. Hell, when this record builds more force and presence in the guitar line, we get some pretty solid songs like the darker chorus riffs on 'Breakfast Eggs' or the meaty driving riff of the cover 'Diversion', and while it almost becomes routine for every song to end with a solo, they're good enough that it's not a problem. What does get to be a problem is that some of these tracks don't so much evolve as they do break apart, like the transition on the title track, or when 'Candy Sam' doesn't so much end as it fades into an acoustic groove with children's voices singing the melody. And that's when the melody evolves at all - 'Baby Big Man (I Want A Mommy)' tries to build something off a turgid bassline and garish melody and it's way too broad to stick the landing, a problem that later shows up on the cleaner and somehow less tolerable 'Squealer Two'. And then there's 'W.U.O.T.W.S.', which is the sort of lo-fi instrumental sound collage encapsulating the entire album that honestly is less dissonant than I expected with the binaural layering, but it's not exactly something I'd ever feel inclined to revisit.

And yet even the songs I like when stacked against Ty Segall's best don't really measure up, even on a purely melodic basis, so do the lyrics save them? Well, let me start by talking about the whole concept underlying this record, of 'emotional mugging' - which basically means the creating and viewing of cheap, free digital content, with the ease of it all making it an easy, addictive high that further pushes us away from deeper emotional connections, emphasizing the body over the mind. And here's where Ty Segall does the most right, because this is rich thematic territory, and Segall manages to rise above his usual anti-technology rhetoric into some cogent points. I like the shallow wasting emptiness of 'Californian Hills' and the anxious anticipation that comes on 'Squealer', I like how 'Diversion' shows what happens when someone who didn't get their payoff comes knocking, and even though the self-absorption can get grating on 'Mandy Cream', it makes sense given how self-involved the internet is. Hell, conceptually I like how pathetic 'Baby Big Man (I Want A Mommy)' is, and how the double metaphor of candy runs through the entire record, emphasizing the cheap but hollow thrill and the sexual connotation. And I kind of like the framing of this record: sure, the instrumentation and delivery puts all the sleaze on display, but the album ends with 'The Magazine', with the key lyrics being 'you don't need a reason'. As long as you're not hurting anyone and know what you're doing to yourself - if you want to, say, marathon a dozen of my videos and masturbate to every one of them - that's your prerogative. And yet those fragments of insight are really just fragments over a record that would prefer to indulge in repetition, garish sleaze, and wank than opt for more insight, and with a concept that's as rich as this one, that strikes me as wasteful. Furthermore, for as much artifice as there is here, I have a hard time finding an emotional core - for as much as this album emphasizes cheap empty thrills, I can't help feel that on some level it's just like its subject matter, for better or worse.

So in the end... this is a hard album to recommend, even to fans. Hell, it was hard to review, given that by making this content I'm feeding into the same emotional mugging that Segall is describing, which makes my content feel all the more hollow, which really leaves me on a sour note. But to dissociate from the metatext of all of that, how's the music? Honestly, I think it's decent at best - garish and sleazy and alien enough to draw attention and for the most part well-played, but delve deeper and the inconsistencies and the tracks that don't really evolve and the undercooked lyrics hold this record back. So for me I'm giving Emotional Mugger a very strong 6/10 - conceptually interesting and more than a little unsettling, but ultimately just lacking the payoff musically to really stick with me. However, many have predicted this record will be very polarizing, so if what I described sounds interesting, check this out - it's an experience, that's for damn sure.

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